Tom Vecchio is the award-winning writer of the script, THE LAST EXECUTION. A little info about the project: Dubbed the “mother-in-law from hell,” Elizabeth “Ma” Duncan was the last woman executed in California for having her despised daughter-in-law murdered in 1958 because of an uncomfortably close relationship with her attorney son and her fear of being abandoned and alone in old age. Tom's ability to write character is uncanny. He dives into the heart and soul of real individuals and brings them to life in a totally visual, powerful way. His projects are always deep and encompassing, forcing the audience to ask questions after the final page. We had the honor of reading this script through the WeScreenplay Feature competition and are excited to share this interview with you.
Why did you write your winning script? What inspired the concept?
The more I heard about this long-forgotten murder, the stranger and more bizarre the true facts became. The idea that this woman, a virulent anti-communist, a Seconal addict, turning tricks to put her son through law school, and married 12-18 times (she lost count), I had to write this story that got behind the mask of the bucolic Southern California lifestyle in the Eisenhower 50s. I wanted the story to be a black comedy for the first two acts, and then take a 180 degree turn when the murder takes place where the viewer is repulsed. I never want to see murder being depicted onscreen as anything less then the brutal horror that it is. It’s easy to make violence sexy. I’m just not sure it’s worthwhile in the long run.
Your final round judge said about THE LAST EXECUTION: "There's a very clear mastery of character right from the beginning. [Your protagonist] is incredibly sympathetic." How do you go about creating compelling characters?
For me, every character has a vulnerability. All people have vulnerabilities. With even the most evil antagonist, if you find that weak point, you can create an interesting storyline. I’m interested in seeing fully realized, complete characters onscreen. That’s how life is.People that we interact with in life aren’t archetypes. They have a full range of emotions and motivations and choices that they make. Some make better choices than others.
What types of stories do you like to read or watch? What type of stories do you like to write?
I love thrillers, film noirs, dark films, oddball comedies. I love those character studies where the reality is so in your face that it becomes a hyper-reality. Some of those black and white angry young man films from Britain in the 50s take you to another place. You almost can’t sit still in your seat they’re done so well.
If you had one piece of advice to give other writers, what would it be?
Every day, get into that chair and write. I once heard Mike Nichols interviewed and he said that when you are done with a project, take time off for yourself and do absolutely nothing. Recharge.Let the brain cool down. Go sit on a beach or a park bench or a mountain and stare at nothing. When I’m done with a project, I’m getting pretty good at doing absolutely nothing.It takes a little effort. The other thing I like to do, and I said this before when I was asked, I like to do twenty jumping jacks before I sit down to write. Sounds silly but it gets the blood flowing. It really does work.
What are the big and little successes you've had with writing?
A big success for me personally was a handwritten note from Meryl Streep complimenting me on a script of mine that she had read and liked. That meant a lot. The little successes are hearing someone who has read a script of mine who finds moments in the story that I didn’t know were there. It’s almost subconscious that you have placed these moments or relationships in the story, but they have not risen to your conscious thinking until it’s pointed out by someone else. It’s kind of like when a character takes over and you just sit back and let them do the driving, if that makes sense.
Have you ever thought about giving writing up? Why didn't you?
Once. Got overwhelmed and wasn’t sure I could compete with those writers whose work had a profound affect on me.I just thought “what’s the point?I can’t be that good.” I left New York for about six months and was determined to get a real job, settle down and be happy. Forget all this screenwriting stuff.About two months into it, I couldn’t help myself and I started writing again. I realized how much I couldn’t do without it and had to figure out a way to raise the funds to get back to New York. It was a big mistake leaving.On the other hand, it made me sure of my decision to be a writer. Sometimes the negative creates the positive.
What's the most important part of your writing process?
Do I feel it in my gut? If I don’t respond to a story viscerally, there’s no point in writing it.
Where will you be as a writer a decade from today?
Hopefully more economical with language, more in control of what I am trying to say and able to pay my bills.